I first met Jenn Reese last February, when she and author Sara Wilson Etienne had a book signing at Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach.
With Author Jenn Reese, at her book signing, February, 2012
I was ecstatic to discover that Jenn Reese was a big fan of Nickelodeon’s The Last Airbender series. She admitted that her book, Above World, was in fact inspired by the show. Being a big fan of the Last Airbender series myself, I felt an instant kinship with Jenn.
I was happily surprised to discover that Jenn and I shared another common passion–martial arts, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. It’s no wonder that I enjoyed reading ABOVE WORLD as much as Jenn enjoyed writing it.
And now I’ll train the spotlight on ABOVE WORLD’s amazing author, Jenn Reese.
Author’s Bio from her website jennreese.com
Jenn Reese writes science fiction and fantasy adventure stories for readers of all ages. She has published short stories online and in various anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award-winning Paper Cities. Her first novel, Jade Tiger, is an action-adventure kung fu romance for teens and adults. She’s currently at work on a middle-grade adventure series called Above World for Candlewick Press. She lives in Los Angeles where she studies martial arts, plays video games, and dreams of rain.
The Talented Jenn Reese
1. Tell us three random, unique, or weird facts about yourself.
Only three weird things? It’ll be hard to choose…
– I do voice over for an animated web series called Hey Wordy, where I play a young dictionary trying to learn new words in different languages.
– I once took a workshop in monkey kung fu that was so difficult I could barely walk for two weeks after. The guy who taught the workshop was the inspiration for Monkey Fist on the animated TV show Kim Possible.
– In my high school yearbook, the phrase under my photo says “GUT & TOE” because I wanted to be a particle physicist. (They stand for “Grand Unified Theory” and “Theory of Everything.”) I like to think there’s an alternate dimension version of me that works at CERN.
2. What books and movies inspired your love for Sci-Fi or Fantasy?
I read voraciously as a kid, mostly Newbery books. Some of my favorite SF/F books were: A Wrinkle in Time, The Twenty-One Balloons, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Phantom Tollbooth, and A Wizard of Earthsea. They sparked a life-long love of speculative fiction in all forms.
As for movies, I was the perfect age (seven) to see Star Wars on the big screen when it came out. Princess Leia was the first woman I’d ever seen in an action role, and I worshipped her. I loved sf/f TV shows, too: Battlestar Galactica, Tales of the Gold Monkey, The Greatest American Hero, Star Trek, you name it! If it was science fiction or fantasy, I consumed it.
3. What day jobs did you have before you became a full time author?
I’ve mostly worked on the production side at various publishing companies. I’ve done graphic design, database design, web design, and general project management. I love to solve problems, find efficiency paths, and marry form and function whenever possible.
But I should clarify that I’m not yet a full-time writer. I currently work part-time for the Lambda Literary Foundation, a nonprofit that supports and promotes LGBT authors and literature, and I run a freelance book cover design company called Tiger Bright Studios. Some day I might be a full-time writer, but I’m certainly not there yet!
4. When did you know you were going to be a writer? What prompted you to take your writing seriously?
I didn’t start writing until I was twenty-five, and I didn’t start taking myself seriously until long after that. I wrote short stories initially, and even attended the six-week-long Clarion workshop in 1999. But writing was still a hobby. I fit writing into the white spaces of my life, and when I got busy at work, whole months would go by without any new words. I managed to write my first novel in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I finished my second.
But then one day, a switch flipped. I’d been working at a start-up animation company, sometimes pulling 18-hour days and working every weekend. A year went by and I realized that I’d been spending all my time and effort and passion on other people’s dreams. I decided then and there that my dreams deserved just as much respect.
Since then, I’ve shaped my life around writing, not the other way around. Telling stories is my passion and writing makes me happy. I just had to give myself permission to consider those things valuable and to make them a priority.
5. What inspired you to write your first novel, JADE TIGER?
I’d started many novels over the years, but all of them had petered out within a few chapters. I had begun to think that writing a whole novel was an impossible task. In retrospect, I was putting too much pressure on myself. I wanted to write (the fantasy equivalent of) the Great American Novel, and of course I was failing.
Meanwhile, I had been taking kempo for a year and a half and I had fallen head-over-heels in love with martial arts. I was watching documentaries, reading websites, visiting other schools, and taking workshops whenever I could find them. In order to get over my block about writing a novel, I told myself it could be about martial arts and I could put as much of my passion as I wanted into the story – including a rather direct homage to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.
And what do you know, it worked! Writing the book for myself, with no rules except to indulge every passionate whim, got me over that impossible barrier. Since then, I let myself put as much of whatever I’m in love with at the time into the book I’m writing.
6. Like Shan, your main character in JADE TIGER, you are also a martial artist. Do you have a favorite fighting style or weapon?
Of the styles I’ve studied, kung fu is my favorite. I’m not much of a fighter (if you watched me spar, you would alternate between laughing and cringing on my behalf), but I am in love with forms. Forms are a little bit like dance routines – a specific set of movements that train your body in a certain way…while simultaneously looking awesome. They require strength and skill and precision that I can only dream of some day attaining. But even when you do them badly, they still bring together your Mind, Body, and Spirit like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. I never feel more whole than when I’m practicing a form.
But oh, how I love weapons, too! I’m decent with a pair of daggers, the stave, the spear, and the Chinese broadsword. Of those, I think the staff is my favorite – but only because I’ve finally started hitting my imaginary targets more frequently than I hit myself.
7. Do you try to incorporate your own knowledge of kung fu when you write your stories?
Always. Kung fu isn’t a hobby for me, it’s a way of life. Even when I’m not making it to the studio, the philosophy behind kung fu stays with me in all things. It has fundamentally changed my life in almost every respect, and there’s no way I could write anything that wasn’t touched by it in some way.
Also, I love writing fight scenes.
8. Where did you get the story idea for ABOVE WORLD?
A long time ago, I wanted to write a short story about a spaceship captain and I was trying to think of what sort of person might be naturally good at navigating in space. The answer that popped into my head surprised me: a mermaid! That’s how I got the idea of combining mythology with science fiction. I also knew I wanted the book to feel like an epic fantasy adventure, the kind I gulped down as kid. I thought that approach – along with an emphasis on bioengineering instead of spaceships — might win over some readers who didn’t think they liked science fiction.
9. In ABOVE WORLD, humans have biologically engineered themselves in order to survive the harsh climate changes in their world. You’ve created a fascinating setting for your story. Could you give us a few tips or techniques for world-building?
Here are two aspects of my world-building process that I’ve been spending more and more time on lately:
1. I try not to make assumptions about my created societies. I don’t assume the men are the warriors and leaders, the political structure is a monarchy, or that everyone eats the same thing for dinner. (Or even that they have dinner.) The first thing that pops into my head is often consciously or unconsciously based on my personal experience with our world, my unconscious biases, or worse, based on stereotypes. I try to think about my created society’s history, geography, and economy. What sorts of beliefs and traditions truly make sense for these fictional people? I extrapolate as best I can, then question every decision.
2. Omissions are also decisions, and I try to make them carefully. We see a lot of movies where all the characters are heterosexual white people… even when the stories take place in fantasy settings or on other planets. Our world is nothing like that, so why are those places? If I leave out people of color, women in active roles, people with different gender identities or sexual orientations, differently abled people, the old or very young, etc. from my stories, I am making a lot of decisions about my world and its created society. I try to make these choices deliberately, so I know what I’m doing and why.
10. Tell us about your path to publication. What is the coolest thing about being a published author?
My path to publication was pretty straightforward if you ignore the first 10 years where I wrote short stories for adult science fiction and fantasy markets. Once I wrote Above World, I went through rounds of revisions with trusted friends and colleagues (most of whom I had met during my short story phase), researched agents, queried agents, landed an agent, revised again, and went on submission. The book sold within a few months in a two-book deal to Candlewick. Just before Above World was released, we closed the deal on the third book, and I officially get to write a trilogy!
I worked really hard on my revisions and my agent research, but having incredible friends was my ace in the hole. They gave me a lot of advice and a ton of support, and cheered the loudest when things started happening. I am not a big fan of networking in order to get ahead, but I’m utterly devoted to the idea of making friends.
11. What’s your typical day as a writer like? Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
In the perfect week, I write five out of seven days. The other two are designated non-writing days, and usually correspond to the days I spend hours in traffic commuting to and from my part-time job. On writing days, I’m proud if I start writing by 9am and go until noon. Then I spend the afternoons logging job hours, doing freelance cover design, and trying to tackle my inbox.
As for rituals, I don’t have many. I’m addicted to Scrivener, which is probably my biggest crutch, and I usually listen to a playlist of carefully selected movie soundtracks. I can’t write to anything with lyrics, and some days even soundtracks are too distracting. Then I fall back to my White Noise app, where crashing waves, a thunderous rainstorm, or a crackling fire can really help me focus.
12. What do you like to do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies, sports, crafts you like to spend time on?
I used to have a whole host of hobbies, but I cut most of them out when I decided to focus on writing. Nowadays my leisure time is spent reading, playing video games (World of Warcraft, mostly, but I still love my PS3), and bugging my cats. In the future, I want to spend more time drawing. I wanted to be an artist when I was a little girl, and that dream still smolders.
13. Are you currently working on any other projects?
I just turned in the third and final book in the Above World trilogy, and have started work on an unsold YA fantasy. There will be both martial arts and kissing.
14. What advice would you like to give to writers on the road to publication?
Forge strong friendships whenever you can, regardless of whether you think the other person can help you with your career. If they’re a good friend, then they’ll help you… even if it’s in ways you don’t expect.
15. What would you like to say to your young readers? Is there any advice that you would like to give them?
My advice is always “Write your passion,” but I like this paraphrase of a Bruce Lee quote better: “Take what is useful, discard what is not, make what remains your own.”
Thank you so much for the great questions, Nutschell – I had a great time answering them.
Visit me again on Friday. I’ll be giving away a copy of Jenn Reese’s ABOVE WORLD!
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